Surviving Comrades training, getting to the start line uninjured, fresh, without others’ ‘flus and colds is a challenge. Surviving the road on the day and getting a medal is another.

Yet Comrades always asks more. It pokes your ribs saying, “So you can survive? Well then, perform.”

Try to walk away from Comrades satisfied, knowing you could have gone faster, not wimped at any of the hills. Try. It works for a while but not for long. 

Perform even your best and Comrades will just challenge you in other ways.


The Perfect Distance … Part 3 (final)

Part 3 (final for now) of  Facet 2 of what makes
the Comrades Marathon an ultimate run

More of the finish-line feeling: With relief, achievement, the affirmation and culmination comes more. Unwrapped by the run is an acceptance and a fuller appreciation of ourselves just we are  – understanding, maybe our quirks and nuances, maybe more, enjoyment of our lives, even a pinch of admiration.

In those last 50 m, richness floods the senses, inner and outer, now scoured by the effort of the run: bright the taste of air, tight the hunger’s grab at soup, prickling the connections with so many others and what they feel.

Nearly, nearly thereWe experience nothing less than what it’s like fully to be; body, mind, soul singing a song of human being.

Maybe we also feel tired and sore; feelings hard to ignore. As we recover, even if it takes long, a flare, a match struck, an inner fire lights. Those 55 miles pop a cork; we quiver, then can let ourselves revel in the pop, fizz and burst of life.


Nudge in the ribs and its reward

It’s funny. To cope with the Comrades distance you have to think you can do it. Once this thought has been internalised, the jump to thinking that it’s easy is not big. So comes complacency; so comes the need for a jab in the ribs.

Most of us, you will understand, need often to get our feet on the road to get through Comrades. Peter Bosch didn’t. In the days before runners had to qualify, his training was to give up smoking. Okay so he was student-young and hubris-strong. He found out at the end how hard it was really was but he got his medal.

Anyway, if you can get through without training, it’s only part of the story. There will always be a level which you can’t make without training: try winning without training; if that’s too hard then getting a silver medal, or even under 10 hours; or maybe try going back the next year.

A Comrades choice: do we slip through or do we work for something. For some of us, even if we do train, we might not get to the end or get there on time.

The point is that less-trained legs aren’t likely to get to the end. If nothing else it’s the chafe in the shoe, the bottom of our feet, that need to be able to do around 90000 footsteps without breaking.

The nice about training is how much it gives back; oh, so much more than double. Besides maybe ensuring the Comrades goal, training lights up an evergreen tree hung full with presents, sweets and fun.

Getting out the door 4 or 5 days a week, into the near dawn-dark or a luscious sunset, is a kind of perfection. So is the spring in the step and the fire in the eye – you can see that I easily ignore the tired legs – and the tug of a fully belly and a warm bed after a long run in the cold.

Runners will say they get perspective out there. They can find an active peace that dissolves their stress. Runners touch with themselves and with nature as they are really are.

The weekly long slow run is extra-special, filled with flip-plopping footsteps, rustling breath, sunrises, maybe rain, wind, heat and sweat. Often filled too with 5:30 friends, gossip and endorphin-glow, a little sublimation sure and always hope.

I’m sure all runners find that the next coffee, beer, nachos, unfolding view, chat is better after a run than before a run.

Maybe it’s not just the Comrades distance that nudges us in our ribs when we skip a run or two. Maybe the jab also comes how much we like just being out there, happily running, happily strong.


The changing Comrades distance

The Comrades distance teases. It seeks, I hope, to unsettle those who need standardisation and predictability.

The idea as we know, was not so much a standardised distance but to run between the Durban and Pietermaritzburg; far enough that a change here or there makes no difference. The distance changes from year to year with the alternating start venue. The effort might be same because there are more up’s on the shorter up-run, because you end up 700m higher in altitude than the start. While you might not pant as much on the down run, it is longer and you need be downhill running strong.

The distance also changes when the finish venue changes, if road works interfere with the normal route, and with ideas on how best to manage the human stream and traffic flow.

Mostly the range of change isn’t big – a couple of hundred metres or so. And we say this casually about anything from 200 to 800 metres. But now and again, mostly likely, just when you are ready for your silver medal attempt, just when you are at the very best you will ever be, the Comrades route can grow by 2 km and then what?

Both start lines are settled. But for many even the start creates an issue: tt adds extra uncounted metres and extra minutes to the run. TV shows that it takes around 7 minutes for the last runners to cross the start line, a bit longer if you count those who get there late.

The changing distance and the slightly changing route are part of the character of Comrades. Always the run is long enough that a kilometre or two longer or shorter makes little difference to the experience and its aims. The adversity, the challenge in the distance is always there.

The Comrades distance creates it magic when we keep going right to the end however far it is. It comes when our deeper selves respond and, as Vic Clapham knew, our spirit is uncorked.

Facet 3 of what makes the Comrades an ultimate, is the spirit it releases.



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The Perfect Distance … part 2

Part 2 of  Facet 2 of what makes
the Comrades Marathon an ultimate run

First, more of the feeling on crossing the Comrades finish line.  With relief and achievement comes: a marvellous affirmation of all that you dared, all that you did, all you prepared, all you endured; acknowledgement that you campaigned and survived; a culmination well-resolved that allows you first to rest and assimilate what you did; then to fan the embers of the fire that you will next burn. And there is still more in that feeling but now for more on the Comrades distance.

Is ~90km easy?

On TV, Comrades looks easy, even from the side of the road. If only a few people took part, it would look harder. But the constant stream of runners, ordinary enough looking, makes it easier to trivialise the run.

The front runners relentlessly race to the finish. Besides a sweaty stagger they hardly look, from the outside at least, as if the distance was much of a problem. While they walk the finish arena sipping maybe soup, other runners are out on the road and will be for hours still. They smile and wave. They crowd to be on camera. Some wear funny hats. It’s a long party – chatter, jokes, music thump-bump, spectator cheers and runners’ responses.

But it’s not only that. Under the festive noise, the TV commentary, the exuberant interviewers, is a quieter soundtrack: a faint gurgle as runners’ endurance slowly drains; the rasp of a blister, the crackle of a crumbling will; the effort of a foot forced forward.

The TV doesn’t show this increasing, compounding wear on the runners; doesn’t show the increasing concentration etched on the runners faces. It’s inside the runners who feel it and have to manage it.

Anyone tempted to call Comrades easy merely needs to relate it to how they feel after a day of sitting at an office desk, of standing for an hour doing a presentation or in a queue, or how far from the gym-entrance they try to park – then multiply the fatigue by twelve or fifteen or a thousand.

I remember a colleague, Frank saying, “You can walk it.” I’m not sure I could, I walk too slowly and walking uses untrained muscles. “Maybe I could,” I said, “but can you?” Reality is a good test of lots of things that go on in words.

So if you are tempted to say Comrades is easy, enter the event, go and do it.

If you’ve run Comrades before it’s easy to think that it’s an easy run. You just need to train a bit. We forget the hard parts too quickly. My 8th Comrades was the hardest. I thought I would never run again. It took 5 month before I started running again. But by January the next year I was looking forward to the 9th.

But maybe the easiest thought of all is that Comrades distance is too far, that its roads are too hard, the views uninspiring – I mean how many of us go off the route to look down into the Valley of a Thousand Hills. It’s too easy to reject Comrades and quickly  multiply the justifications for avoiding its test.



The Comrades distance needs a mind-shift. You have to expand what you think is possible. If your mind won’t conceive the distance, if you can’t, so to ay, fit it in your head, running it is so much harder.

Comrades also needs a body-shift, mostly out of the door. Because, you can if you want to think about this a little, mind and body are one, actually it needs to start the cycle of mind-body->body-mind shifts.

With great spirit you can enter the race and commit to its training; dreaming of the medal you will earn. It’s just as easy, 3 or 4 times a week to run easy runs and think you are doing enough; to skip a run or six in January. Race day is a long way off, you understand, there is time to train. But because you build your running strength by constant accumulation, your body does need to shift more and your mind does need to shift your body out the warm bed, out the cosy music in the car on the way home after work, into the running world.

There’s another thing. The glow of beating the hills and cut-off of a run-of-the-mill-perfect 42.2 km January marathon is great. In Cape Town we are lucky to have my favourite marathon, the Red Hill. Beautiful route (that takes in a small part of the Tuffer Puffer), a serious climb and a very good determinant of two things: one being how fit or unfit you are, the other that it predicts the best Comrades time you can achieve that year – ~2.5 time that marathon time.

You know deep down that all you can do over the next four months is to get strong enough to do that prediction.

It takes little jolt, maybe that of a double espresso after the breakfast to celebrate the finish, to remember that on Comrades’ day, 42.2 km isn’t even half way. It’s true, you see, that running a 42 km is an achievement in itself. The problem is that 42 km over a hard course, then another 42 also over a hard course, then a little more.

That jolt reminds me that even when I was at my strongest, doing 140km a week with training runs of 44 km on consecutive weekends, I needed to snooze after each one. Maybe it was just that I didn’t want to mow the lawn. But actually after running 44 km I didn’t feel like running more right then – I preferred the after-run snooze, feet in the sun, in the lingering memory of the run and the sizzle and fizz of a perfect after-run breakfast, and the crackling smell of more fresh coffee. Still, as I drifted off, I remembered that 90 km is quite a long way too.

Part 3, the last, of the Perfect distance comes next

©Wildbooks Ink. It would be polite and legally correct if republishing this work or part of it would be preceded by the express written permission of Wildbooks Ink from on the terms it prescribes.  Excerpts may be used if the writer, Paul Vorwerk, is prominently, fully and clearly indicated and that prominent and specific reference is made to the original content and this site.

The Perfect Distance … part 1

Facet 2 of what makes Comrades an ultimate run


Crossing the finish line after running ~90 km is a marvel; even if it’s running that is also walking, cursing or crawling.

That feeling, that fizz and burst, makes the Comrades distance exactly right for a perfect running experience.

Maybe it’s just relief. But if one takes a little time to understand, it’s a lot more than that. For a start, the finishing-feeling has a decent amount of achievement in it. Comrades is far enough to make anyone falter, even give up, if not the whole run, then a goal. So getting to the end no matter what, surviving the challenge, is an achievement.

It doesn’t matter if the distance changes a little from year to year. It’s always kind of exactly far enough.

It’s definitely the perfect distance to release the “human spirit” as its founder intended.

That’s a lot of perfection for an expanding and contracting road running distance. But it’s there to be experience and, as always, if you want to argue, first go do it, again and again if necessary until you understand.

Why about 90 km?

Vic Clapham, the Comrades conceiver, as recorded in Morris Alexander’s, The Comrades Marathon Story set the distance because of two


He knew from experience that an army recruit, even one from behind desk could, with more or less 6 months training do a 40-mile (~64 km) march in full kit, carrying weapons, ammunition, perhaps a cigarette or two and a letter from home.

Training was one thing. In the field, the soldier would have to complete the distance and then maybe have to confront an enemy. So he had to have a bit of extra energy too.

The ~55 miles of Comrades without army baggage, is of the same order. To complete the run a “reasonably able person” needs about 6 months of training. If the training went okay, there might be a little extra left to party after the run, at least until seven o’clock.

Vic Clapham, also knew about the London to Brighton distance in the UK. People ran, walked and when cars were invented, drove with a flag-waver walking in front from London to Brighton. Its distance of about 54 miles was similar to the distance between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. And, if you don’t know the distance of the London to Brighton Marathon was formalised in 1953, a very good year for things to be born, at 54 miles and 198 yards which is 87.085 km.

I wonder though if our Vic had any idea just how much the distance he chose would move so many runners. It has satisfied over 100 000 runners since 1921, many of them over and over again and many more will hear its call.

I’m not sure he thought then that even in peace time, even when the virtue of wars evaporated, the road, distance, those hills and twisting cambers would give so many a taste of perfection. In what he did, he created a perfect allure.

The long and the short of it

The long and short of the Comrades Marathon distance, is that it is neither too long nor too short. It’s about exactly right.

The Comrades distance is long enough to take runners out of their comfort zones and keep them there long enough to change them. No matter how well we train its going to get to us.  No matter how good a runner we are, the distance will make us dig deeper. No matter how far behind the get-the-best-time effort level we run, the distance will make us work.

Much longer and fewer would do it. That would be a pity. Sharing the run with many others is part of perfecting the experience.

It’s not that runners can’t cope with longer runs. Even I could. But the training, getting the body and mind right, the event itself, would take too much out of their lives.

Part of the rightness of the Comrades distance is while it allows us to get the most out of endurance running, it also allows us to keep the balance between our running and the other parts of our lives – family, work and community lives. It’s actually al lot more than balance. Comrades adds a glow to the other parts of our lives.

At the same time, the Comrades distance can have a dark side. To be more precise, it can create a dark side in runners. It’s easy to do too much: to get drained; obsessed; to neglect things that need to be done; make bad decisions about running when sick or with injuries; even to push others into doing something that is not good for them.

While Comrades is a long run, it’s also short enough to be sane. Short enough to almost guarantee success for those who do the training. Short short enough too, to allow us to fit training for it into our everyday lives.

But it’s never too short. Shorter runs don’t always test all our frailties. They allow us to sneak through. That’s not to say that there’s no place for shorter runs. They have their own possibilities of perfection. If nothing else, you can’t really run Comrades without doing many, actually very many, shorter runs. Even 1 or 2 km recovery runs when you need to.

But the point is that coping with a marathon is easier than coping with two. Coping with 56 km and 60 km runs is one thing, but Comrades is just that much harder. It’s the last 30 km that are the problem, not the first 30 km. Nor even the first 50 km. The further the run, the harder each kilometre becomes. It’s like running faster and faster: the more we approach the speed of light, the “heavier” we become and less we can actually go at the speed of light. If that’s that too weird for this story then I apologize.

Anyway, its distance means the Comrades is always far enough to test us right into our core.

More about the distance next time in The perfect distance in part 2


©Wildbooks Ink. It would be polite and legally correct if republishing this work or part of it would be preceded by the express written permission of Wildbooks Ink from on the terms it prescribes.  Excerpts may be used if the writer, Paul Vorwerk, is prominently, fully and clearly indicated and that prominent and specific reference is made to the original content and this site.